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John O’Mahony on his two terms as Mayo manager

Sport

Interview
Daniel Carey

SHORTLY after being ordained many moons ago, Fr John Doherty set up a school league in Achill. One of the children to whom he presented medals was Chris McGinty, who later wrote a book about the Scanlon Cup. McGinty has long been domiciled in Dublin, and islander and cleric had scarcely seen each other since, until they met in St Nathy’s College, Ballaghaderreen on the night John O’Mahony’s book ‘Keeping The Faith’ was launched.
Eleven members of the Leitrim team who started the 1994 Connacht final were there, along with Galwegians like Niall Finnegan, Ja Fallon and Anne and Michael Meehan Snr. Among the former Mayo players O’Mahony met that night or at subsequent book signings were Eugene Lavin, Michael Fitzmaurice, Andy Moran, Gabriel Irwin, John Maughan, Martin Carney, Willie Joe Padden and Tom Reilly.
O’Mahony had been asked by Liam Hayes to do a book after Galway won the 2001 All-Ireland final. By then, he was already committed to ‘doing a diary’ of the 2002 season with someone else but, he recalls with a laugh: “It never saw the light of day because we didn’t win the All-Ireland!”
Last year, Conor Mortimer asked the Magheraboy, Kilmovee native to launch his autobiography ‘One Sunday’ – produced by Liam Hayes’s publishing house, Hero Books. The former Meath man came knocking again and this time, O’Mahony said ‘yes’.
The book was written with John Harrington, an Irish Sun journalist who previously authored a work on the legendary Tipperary hurler John Doyle.
During the course of a recent 50-minute phone interview with this newspaper, former Mayo, Leitrim and Galway manager O’Mahony discussed a wide range of topics thrown up by the book. This week, we focus on his two senior stints with Mayo.

Daniel Carey: You say in the book that you went into 1989 aiming to win the All-Ireland title – at a time when Mayo hadn’t got past the semi-final in 38 years.
John O’Mahony: Yeah, and I think we were changing the mindset. We could have been very safe ... in the sense that winning a Connacht title was a big deal at that stage. But we felt that we wanted to push it on further – and not just me; the whole squad.
The drawback was the squad was coming into their veteran stage, and once it didn’t succeed, then a transition stage started. But it could have [succeeded] – and I have no doubt that if we had made that breakthrough, Mayo would have won a number of All-Irelands since ... the history could have been totally different. Because nobody had expected us to do it. I felt it was more a mental thing than a physical thing. And I just felt we could have had it won in ’89 before anyone would realise it …

DC: ‘Constructive dismissal’ is the phrase you use in relation to your parting of the ways with Mayo in 1991 after you weren’t allowed to choose your own selectors. How do you reflect on that now?
JO’M: I got very good advice from people within the County Board when I took over the senior team in ’88. At that stage, I wanted … to bring up my whole [under-21] back-room team, but wiser heads prevailed and that didn’t happen. I was disappointed and annoyed at the time, but I had to go with what was there, and I got very good people along with me. But when it got to ’91, I felt I needed to freshen it up. Looking at it now, I would have kept some of my selectors, but I would have freshened it up with others, and I wasn’t given the chance to do that...
The need for everyone [to be] singing from the one hymn-sheet is incredibly important to success. And that isn’t just within a team or a panel or a management. It’s also [includes] supporters and the County Board. And when you get that going together, it’s unbelievable what can be achieved… But it’s hard. Sometimes you get a situation where everyone knows how to win an All-Ireland, but no one will let anyone else do it!

DC: When you got the Mayo job for the second time, you were already committed to running for election. But you say that neither role compromised the other...
JO’M: It didn’t in one sense, because I had committed at that stage to the political career, and the [Mayo] job emerged after the final in 2006, which I didn’t envisage after the great [semi-final] win against Dublin. I was convinced myself that I could do both, but … it didn’t work out like that. Now to be honest, I think whoever became manager ... would have [had] a particularly difficult job [even] if they … were full-time managers. Because we were entering a phase where a Mayo team was going to go naturally into transition, big-time.

DC: You talk in the book about ‘laying foundations for a team of the future’. Was that your sense from that beginning of that period?
JO’M: Yeah, and I said this to County Board officials when I met them. I felt that ultimately, a bridge was going to have to be built between one great team and hopefully another. We stayed competitive in ’08 and ’09, but took in water in ’10 big-time with [defeats to] Sligo and Longford … But I was convinced when I walked out of the dressing-room in Longford that there was a very bright future for Mayo – and I said that to the players.
And I suppose the one thing sometimes I get hurt with is that I left Mayo in a desperate state. I felt that they had been excellent players – the Donal Vaughans, the Kevin McLoughlins, the Aidan O’Sheas. Colm Boyle played in 2008. Cillian O’Connor was a minor and too young, but Lee Keegan and Jason Doherty were in a development panel at that stage.
James Horan did absolutely brilliantly with them and took them on. But .. we made the right choices in who had the potential... Aidan O’Shea could have ended up in Australia at that time and… I felt that he needed to be fast-tracked into the Mayo senior team. That’s where Mayo wanted him; that’s where I wanted him; that’s where his parents wanted him, and ultimately that’s where he wanted to be himself.
So I felt that there was some good actions and some good decisions, but I also acknowledge that 2010 was a disaster, and I hold my hands up on that. But if we had come out of Longford that evening, I have no doubt that we could have had a creditable season. The way that it emerged, it was almost as if it was a nadir … It appeared like that, but it wasn’t that.

DC: You mention in the book some of the theories that did the rounds about your own motives at the time. Would it be fair to say that your motives were questioned in a way that didn’t arise when you were teaching?
JO’M: Ah, yes, yes.

DC: Everything was seen through the political lens...
JO’M: Yes, exactly. And they were never questioned by genuine GAA people who were on either side of the political divide, but perhaps they were by some … people who didn’t know the GAA. It would really, really hurt me if I felt that I would in any way – in any way – use the GAA for [political] purposes … I like to think that whatever I do, I try and do it 150 per cent. And I would like to think that wherever I’ve been – whether it be club, county or school – that I’ve always done it for the right reasons. Now, look it … people are entitled to their opinions. But I’m entitled to mine! [laughs]

DC: In that line, maybe some people in the political sphere will look at the timing of the book and say it’s a reminder to the Galway electorate of past glories. What would say to them?
JO’M: If I wanted to use a book for electoral reasons, I would have done it in 2006!
I was asked to do a book back in 2001, and one of the reasons I didn’t … was I was still in management, and I felt that there were some things I mightn’t be able to address. I’m five years out of management now and I felt if I didn’t do it now, there was no chance of doing it ever.
If I wanted to remind Galway people, I would have [had] big razzmatazz and a launch in Galway, which I didn’t have. I had it in my alma mater, St Nathy’s College, where I taught and trained teams for 31 years, and I got Tommie Gorman – a great friend of mine, but also someone who’s assisted me in audio-visual over the years, because of his links in RTÉ – to launch it. There was over 1,000 people there. And hundreds have come back and said that it was the best GAA night they ever had. So it wasn’t in any sense a political night.
I could have got the Taoiseach to launch it, [but] … I didn’t do that. I kept it in my own school, which is in a constituency outside of both Mayo and Galway. So if I wanted to use [the book for political purposes] I could have done. But I didn’t, but I always have kept it separate … It was GAA friends who were there, [the result of] bonds that I had forged over 30, 40 years – unbreakable ones, as far as I’m concerned.

‘Keeping The Faith’ by John O’Mahony (and John Harrington) is published by Hero Books.

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